COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - A South Carolina law enforcement officer can legally police by themselves before completing all their training, but state lawmakers may change that.
Under current state law, a new officer or deputy can serve before going to the South Carolina Justice Academy if they are scheduled to begin training within a year.
Criminal Justice Academy Director Jackie Swindler said while a non-certified officer is able to perform their duties, it’s a rare occurrence.
Swindler said this practice was more common a few years ago when smaller, rural departments were short-staffed and needed new hires to quickly fill open shifts while they waited months to go to the academy.
The director said lowering those wait times has been a priority of his during his tenure. He said efforts to move some training lectures online to be accessed before formally starting at the academy and other programs reduced the wait to enter the academy from months to a couple of weeks before the pandemic.
“There are so many agencies out there that are desperate for hires. It’s a tough recruiting process right now to get people to come into this field, but a lot of agents that are sometimes pretty obvious about how the probation is right now and how they’re treated so they’re probably not many agencies, today, that do not have openings,” Swindler said
Rep. Chris Wooten, R-Lexington, a former South Carolina State Trooper, said he has been working to update state law to require certified officers to accompany non-certified officers when they serve for a couple of years. He said he has worked with colleagues across the aisle, included input from law enforcement officials like Swindler, and has remained open to tweaking the original bill.
In addition to addressing officer certification, H.3050 would change state law so that a chokehold is considered “deadly force.” It would also mandate that an officer intervenes if a colleague is abusing their power and would require the academy to go to every department in the state to make sure minimum standards on issues like use of force, hiring, firing, duty to intervene, and other areas are in place and followed.
Swindler supports these reforms and said they are already standard practice at the academy and most departments, but this would codify them all into law.
“This isn’t a white versus Black issue. This is not a Republican versus Democrat issue. This is all people issues. Our officers are out there to protect and serve and they need to know that we trust them and we need to know that we can make it work,” Wooten said.
In a show of bipartisanship, Wooten and Rep. Ivory Thigpin, D-Richland, stood side by side on Tuesday the day before the debate on the bill began to stress the need for unity in South Carolina right now to do something to improve policing.
“There are some people who say, ‘right now the temperature is too hot, right now people are too volatile, right now we shouldn’t do anything,’ I think that’s the completely wrong type of thinking. These kinds of events happen and they will continue to happen and we need to continue to work,” Thigpin said.
Discussion on H.3050 has begun on the House Floor after it advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee last week.
During initial debate, some lawmakers said they want to see the bill go further regarding the failure to intervene and others said they want to see other reforms added to it.